Asian Americans in New York City gathered in solidarity with many others across America on Thursday night to mark the second anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings.
The vigil at Times Square in Midtown was part of a nationwide event organized by Stand with Asian Americans called “Always With Us: Asian Americans Rise Against Hate.” Each event featured state senators and congress members, documentary filmmakers and musicians, as well as authors and activists who reflected on the Atlanta spa shootings that occurred on March 16, 2021, when a shooter murdered eight people at several spas, including six women of Asian descent.
“Two years ago, the Atlanta shootings shook us to our core. We lost six women who are mothers, sisters, friends, and aunts,” said Don Vu, co-founder of Stand with Asian Americans. “Since then, the violence and discrimination hasn’t stopped. We’ve continued to face attacks at every age in our community. Let me be clear, we’re not here to simply mourn our losses, we’re going to fight for a better future for all Asian Americans across the country.”
The New York City event featured musical performances by actor and musician Perry Yung and the Judo Club band rocking out with “Stop Asian Hate”‘ and “Love One Another” messages alongside their groovy bass lines, followed by NYC-raised singer-songwriter Wolftyla and D.C.-based youth performer Juliet Lee, who sang a cover of Andra Day’s Rise Up.
Speakers included Nobel Prize nominee and civil rights organization Rise founder Amanda Nguyen, U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-Queens), SapnaNYC Executive Director Diya Basu-Sen, and Sikh Coalition Senior Manager of Policy and Advocacy Nikki Singh.
Also speaking at Times Square yesterday evening was Cecille Martinez Lai, a Queens-based chef who migrated to New York City from the Philippines 25 years ago. Martinez Lai was with her son, who she said is in the U.S. Marines, in Queens earlier this month when they were called Asian slurs and physically assaulted by two individuals.
“The last thing that I remember is one of the passengers hitting me. I was knocked out unconscious,” Martinez Lai said. “I decided to be brave enough and speak out so we can raise awareness that hate crimes are still happening and that our streets of New York are still not safe for us. I think so much hate comes from ignorance, and we can all play a role in educating ourselves. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.”
Eugena Oh, a member of the Stand with Asian Americans New York City Chapter, said that the community has had to fight back against messaging that has devalued and dishonored the Asian population for far too long. The messaging has created an, at times, dangerous and oppressive environment for Asian women.
‘They were targeted because they were women, and because they were Asian women,” Oh said. “We have to counter the centuries-long messaging that we are not seen and that we do not matter.”
‘Create community’ and ‘cure hatred’
Both Oh, who is also the NYC regional director for The Asian American Foundation, and Yung, the actor and musician, recalled their days studying Asian American history in college — being among the first students with the opportunity to do so — and learning about the accomplishments of Asian women including Yuri Kochiyama, a political activist who was close friends with Malcolm X; Grace Lee Boggs, a human rights activist involved in the Black Power movement in Detroit; and Helen Zia, a journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights.
“I think that a cure for the hatred now is to create community again, and to look back to the leaders, our ancestors during the Civil Rights (era) and think about what solidarity really means,” Yung said.
Oh said through her work in social and civil rights, she’s found that, contrary to mainstream belief, Asian people — particularly a significant number of Chinese Americans — in New York City are facing poverty, food insecurity, physical and mental health concerns, and a great need for rental assistance. The poverty rates of Burmese, Bangladeshi, Chinese, and Pakistani American were the highest in New York state, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey.
“People would be surprised to learn some of these demographics and facts, but Asian Americans are the most impoverished by ethnic group in New York City,” Oh said. “There is a true lack of parity between the need and the resources being invested into our people and community.”
Congresswoman Meng acknowledged several Asian New Yorkers who were recently killed: Michelle Go, Yao Pan Ma, Christina Yuna Lee, and Zhiwen Yan. Meng is the first Asian American Congressmember from New York State and the only person of Asian descent representing the northeast region in Washington D.C.
“I’m devastated, our communities are devastated by these senseless attacks and the lives that were lost,” Meng said. “But we are also more motivated than ever to build safer communities for everyone. Combating anti-Asian hate is a top priority of mine in Congress.”
Hate crimes in 2021 increased nearly 12% compared to the year prior, with anti-Asian hate crimes more than doubling, per the latest FBI hate crimes report. That’s why, Meng said, she helped create a $35 million grant program, Community-Based Approaches to Advancing Justice, within the U.S. Justice Department to provide resources to community-based organizations to help combat and prevent hate crime and bias incidents and to support victims of hate crimes.
Meng said she is also currently working on the creation of a national museum in D.C. dedicated to the history, culture, and accomplishments of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“I believe that an important, long-lasting, and long-overdue way to combat anti-Asian hate is to educate others about the fact that Asian American history is American history. We are American, too,” Meng said. “I want to recognize how inspiring it has been to see the ways in which not only our community, but voices from different communities across the nation, have stood with us from the very beginning and have spoken out against anti-Asian hate and violence.”